The first manned mission to Mars is underway, and a ragtag group of five is ready to go. They’ve been carefully vetted, exhaustingly briefed and instructed not to tell anyone where they’re going. When the day finally comes, they say their final goodbyes before suiting up for their two-and-a-half year mission… on Earth, in the middle of nowhere.
It turns out the real astronauts have been experiencing interpersonal conflict, and the bureaucratic Viking Society wants to figure out how to resolve the problem. The five main characters are tasked with living in a simulation of the Mars habitat after being selected for their personalities, which perfectly match the crew in space.
“Viking” chronicles the struggles that follow through the eyes of David, a high school gym teacher who must inhabit the persona of venerated astronaut John Shepard.
Much of “Viking” is characterized by a dry, ironic sensibility that accentuates its bleak setting. Grievances abound surrounding personal hygiene, sugar cubes in coffee and whether dance parties would distract from the mission.
Each understudy receives a daily memo from their Martian counterpart detailing the mood and personal vendettas they must embody, adding a layer of ambiguity as David and his peers never quite know whether the others are acting or genuinely peeved. The film evokes the deadpan likes of “Severance” or “The Lobster” as characters stiffly share their feelings using technical jargon, and end even the most confrontational encounters with “I’m glad we had this conversation.”
The obsession with minutiae throughout the second act left me wondering what exactly the point of it all was going to be. While that would usually be damning for a film, it’s precisely the idea that “Viking” is trying to get across — the film is essentially a prolonged existential crisis.
As the atmosphere gets more tense and their attempts to produce useful recommendations for the Mars mission are largely fruitless, the Earth crew are left to wonder whether their work matters at all and how worthwhile keeping up appearances is.
Ultimately, “Viking” is not a movie about space. In fact, our only glimpse of the extraterrestrial is in John’s dreams. Instead, it’s a story about the friction that arises in communication and the pitfalls of living for others rather than for the self.
The film uses the rigid, sterile environment of a fake Mars habitat to highlight our desire for agency and the importance of simple personal pleasures, and to show how those things can become a burden when faced with a task larger than ourselves. “Viking” seems to argue that there is no such thing as total assimilation to a role or a group.
The film’s story and style also invite more metaphorical interpretations. One intriguing reading is the movie as an allegory for faith. The Earth crew members live their lives in the artificial habitat in accordance with guidelines from superiors and memos from a “higher power,” and the Mars explorers they emulate are usually referred to by a finger pointing up to the sky.
David is firm in his beliefs about the world and his desire to improve it when he is interviewed as a Viking candidate at the beginning of the film. However, the one question that gives him pause is whether he believes his dreams have any significance.
His growing existential crisis — compounded by a reveal near the end of the film — is akin to a crisis of religion that erodes his confidence in his worldview.
Or, as a friend pointed out to me, the film can also be read as a cautionary tale against method acting.
I’m unsure whether to classify the film as science fiction, as the real Mars mission is tangential to the story. If it is sci-fi it does what the genre does best — use stories about other planets to highlight the human problems that exist on our own.
While some points could have benefitted from a sharper, more vicious edge, “Viking” is an entertaining and thought-provoking tale of self versus society.